Monday, December 05, 2011

The Middle East between Modernity & Tradition

First published at 5PMBAHRAIN

Whenever the Western reader leafs through a newspaper of 2011 and finds the occasional article dealing with Bahrain, he is met with a mixture of horror and surprise – horror because of the endless procession of political analysts from the world over, writing about a pearl-size island about which many of us had never heard and that offer us a view, that though articulate, seems to encapsulate the whole world and history in the political events of the day, or, as in the news parlance of an American radio network: “Give us twenty-two minutes and we will give you the world”.
This thing that journalism, political or otherwise, calls the world is a very small place both in terms of its geography and themes and the emphasis is unmistakably placed on images of suffering that are quickly replaced by images from other tragedies in other places, more gruesome and unimaginable, depending on the mood of the day.
The surprise, on the other hand, comes from the acute realization that the moment when everything becomes political – even the most intimate feelings – nothing is really political at all, and then, instead of commentary, we are simply being offered tragedy, revolution and unrest as yet one another spectacle of the media highway, that quickly fades from view and obscures the realities that occupy men and women all over the earth in the pursuit of their daily lives.
Not many of the political commentators remember or have been told about the early days of Bahrain, before oil and revolution, when the tourists dropped at the bus stop in Manama on the edge of the sea in a place known as Bab Al Bahrain that now has become an area of land reclaimed from the sea where the high risings and the diplomatic quarters of Manama stand today. Back then in the 1950’s it was the delight of the visitors to walk around the souk and the already legendary shops – Jashanmals, Bastaki, Koshabi, Ashrafs – and be met with the friendly vendors, the occasional painter and the curious young men from the villages.
It is difficult indeed for politics to remember all that. One has to ask himself what do people exactly mean in Bahrain and all over the Middle East when they say that “I wasn’t interested in politics until it hit home” and whether the revolutionary aspirations of a great region extending all the way from Morocco to Bahrain, can be addressed by the mere overthrow of each and every leader, then to be replaced by a democracy, as if through a magic spell and act of contrition the world would suddenly turn into a formless but homogenous mass of political denizens after the fashion of the Greek polis.
I know this hardly to be the case not only from the experience of current unrest in Bahrain but also from having lived in Colombia throughout the drug wars and civil unrest of the 1990’s and later on in Israel in the course of the Second Intifada in the early 2000’s. In spite of everything, people all over the world, find the courage to go on with their lives, strange as it seems, to the onlookers comfortably assembled across the sights and sounds of war that come out of their high definition TV. The question of revolution is never merely only the narrow aspect of either political transition or social inequality.
There is a struggle in the Middle East happening for decades now at the level of culture and tradition in which an entire region – particularly the Arabian Gulf – finds itself faced with the question of how to modernize the state without destroying the tissue of society and how to modernize society without giving up the claims of national sovereignty on which nearly all the Arab states have been built in the course of the 20thcentury.
The question to be asked here is not merely that of legitimacy – for which there might be always found a plethora of theological, historical and political explanations – but that of authority and not whether authority can or is being challenged, but how to challenge authority. We have all grown into the imagery of the Middle East as this Romantic, alive and dirty place that though might be adequate for an artist, it does not meet the demands of modern realities in which there’s no such a thing as medieval states – all contemporary forms of government, tyrannical or not, are embedded in a mixture of a global modernity and local history. This includes North Korea, Cuba and Iran.
Out of this complex milieu of traditional values and local modernities that have spread all over the world, it remains clear that no one is excluded from the global scenarios of history and that what is really important about recent events in the Middle East is how those of us who are not involved in the political arena, react to the challenges posed rather than imposed by the world. It is unthinkable that an operation so complex as liberal democracy can take hold either at the expense of tradition or without the whole body of thought – philosophical and religious – that has shaped Western modernity for over three centuries.
Hereby is also begot the question of art and how culture has responded to the world and here the question of modernity and tradition ceases to be the binary opposition – so adamantly advertised by media – between Islam and the West; the reason behind this is that no matter how embedded in the local history and tradition is the artistic and literary production of any nation, the modes of production, performance and cultural criticism that are practiced nowadays have originated in the technological and intellectual innovation of the West. In this sense, any production and consumption of art, anywhere in the world, is already engaged in a conversation with the West rather than in a radical opposition to it.
The question of art is not without a revolutionary power of its own, for as it was expressed by Susan Sontag already several years ago, every era has to reinvent the project of spirituality for itself and in the modern era, one of the most active metaphors for the spiritual project is art. There was no revolution that ever succeeded anywhere that wasn’t preceded by a long period of evolution in intellectual and social matters, in generally upheld notions of politics and religion and in forms of art as such. Rather than imposing its consciousness on life as it is the favorite exercise of the political know-it-all’s, art is that space in which its own consciousness is derived by life and not the other way around – It responds to life rather than shape it.
It would be difficult to understand the transformations of Bahrain’s society without looking at the works of its own painters, such as the legendary Rashid Al Khalifa, Abdul Wahab Koheji, Abdullah Al Muharraqi and Nasser Al Yousif. What do their images tell us about Bahrain through the decades? They inform us only about the technical transformation of painting but also about questions larger than the order of the political, in which the bodies begin to come out of their traditional clothes and the bucolic scenarios of the old Manama slowly recede to give place to other colors, more plastic, more metallic, less Romantic and more global.
Even though they are staged in the social and cultural codes of Muslim conservative societies, we begin to see in them the abstract symbols of freedom and emancipation and autonomy that are not only part of the extended political lexicon but rather, constitute a broader texture in which the lives of those not involved in politics takes place. It is not only the image of fine arts but also the writings of those such as Ebrahim Al-Arrayadh, Ali Al-Shargawi and the more contemporary Ali Al Saeed and the motion pictures of Khalifa Shaheen, Bassam Al-Thawadi and Mohammed Bu Ali.
Small as the sample is, it is representative for the question of modernity and the tradition that could be nowhere else better represented in the individual voices of those who are the speaking consciousness of mankind, than by the narrow aspirations of political scenarios. The questions that are asked by the production of art in the Arab world contained a thicker and more fragile layer of anxiety over how individual people want to live out their autonomy: Can we ask ourselves questions about sex and identity? It is possible to live in a largely secular world and still take part in it being anchored in tradition? How do we act out the conflicted identities of the age? Is it possible to separate our values from our faith? These questions are all pre-political and as such, are the true body of proof of a revolution and never the consequence thereof.
The work of Yemeni-American artist Ibi Ibrahim is one of those markers of the questions at work here: His short narrative film “Sounds of Oud”, to be released in 2012, tells the story, casual as it is, of a Middle Eastern couple that has moved to America, looking for a better life and yet there they are faced with the overwhelming weight of the traditions from home set against the background of an ever so rapid and eternally young modern world. It calls upon the viewer to ask himself whether it is possible to enter the fields of the world and leave them as one wishes, being uninflected by the uncertainty and instability of the world around yourself.
What is particularly interesting in the work of Ibrahim is precisely the question that surrounded all the Middle Eastern revolutions with a thick halo of embarrassment and shame: How do we relate our most basic emotions and feelings to the vertical fall out of our zone of comfort, that is demanded by the flux of activities, interests and ideas at this point in history. Is it possible to ask those questions at all? Are we going to be content with the answers provided by the experiment of secularity in the West or do we have to come up with newer and fresher answers of our own?
The true weight of revolutionary promises rests, in the long term, upon taking the time to reflect on these questions and find either answers or better questions. Is Bahrain or Yemen or any other country in the region prepared to engage with the work of Ibrahim and others of his kind? To be sure, they are no strangers in the Middle East and though their voices are not necessarily heard, it would be futile to deny not only that the works – of art and otherwise – are there but that their questions permeate the fragile tissue of the private life of many households that grapple with those questions.
I would be hesitant that the mere effacement of political transitions could provide the answers that are being not only politely asked but demanded in a constant flux of contradictory images, landing in plain view, from all the corners of the earth. To be at home in the world does not necessarily mean to carry a passport and to be granted a citizenship in the country of our birth or another, but rather, the possibility that we can make it into the place where we share an in-between with other people, with their questions, with their ideas. In the desire to jump out into the abyss of freedom, many have forgotten to ask themselves the questions that define life and have turned instead to a realm of politics as pure as that of religion.
The grand drama of revolution is actually secondary to the significant aspect of revolution: What is significant is the manner in which the Revolution turns into a spectacle, it is the way in which it is received all around by spectators who do not participate in it but who watch it from a far, as if merely attending the show. Susan Sontag remarked in the last years of her life that to have access to art and literature, was to escape from the prison of national vanity, of philistinism, of compulsory provincialism, of inane schooling, of imperfect destinies and bad luck. It is the passport to enter a larger life- the zone of freedom.
It remains yet to be seen if it is possible to convince the political animals of the world about the primacy of the elementary questions of personal freedom and autonomy to take precedence over the anonymous and often mass-motivated pursuits of politics. Imperfect destinies is something that cannot be cured, for every destiny is imperfect in its own way, but the decisive weight of the unease between the safe place of tradition and the unsafe time of modernity is defined when we make up our minds on our own whether we want to live in these imperfect destines and turn them into our destinations. That is the place where we wait for men and women like Ibi Ibrahim and others of his kind, to challenge us, to interrogate us, to make us uncomfortable – This is where the true potential of revolution awaits.
by: Arie Amaya-Akkermans, freelance writer and translator

No comments: